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From A Fighter's Perspective: The Purpose Of The Guard

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The following is a piece written by local professional MMA fighter Jake Whitfield (3-1)

The guard is perhaps the position that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is most noted for. 85 years ago, when Carlos Gracie Sr. opened the first Gracie Academy, there was no concept of a guard position. At that point in time, the Gracie family was teaching some sort of hybrid between the throwing, pinning, and submission techniques of Judo and the traditional self defense techniques of Jujutsu. Exactly what this hybrid consisted of is one of the biggest debates in the martial arts. What is not a debate, is that Carlos' younger brother Helio is the one responsible for establishing the guard as its own entity and establishing it as a position from which to attack and defend.

Grandmaster Helio Gracie was the man responsible for the system of positions that is known an accepted today by grapplers of all styles around the world (Mount, Side Control, Guard). Before Helio began to modify the traditional techniques that he had learned, the techniques existed only in isolation. Arm locks and chokes were well known but they were taught as individual stand alone techniques. Helio began to teach that certain positions are better than others and that there are certain positions that could be used to attack from and certain positions that were purely defensive.

Helio's most famous victory over the Japanese champion Kato highlighted this advancement in strategy. At the time that the match ended, both Helio and Kato were applying the same choke on each other: the cross choke. However it was Kato that went to sleep and Helio that survived. Why was this? What was the difference? The difference was not strength, as Kato enjoyed an approximately 20 pound weight advantage; the difference was the position of their bodies. Helio's position on the bottom with his legs wrapped around Kato's waist proved superior and gave Helio the victory. This is the guard in action.

More after the jump:

Throughout the generations, the guard evolved into an even more formidable weapon for jiu-jitsu fighters in Brazil. Grandmaster Carlson Gracie was known for punishing his adversaries from the guard. In the 70s, the guard took a dramatic change in the hands of Master Rolls Gracie. Rolls is generally given credit for two significant developments in the history of the guard. First, he rediscovered a lost technique in an old book: the triangle choke. Second, he is generally believed to be the originator of the open guard as an active and offensive position.

Before Rolls' influence, a fighter would open his legs to attack and if the attack failed the fighter would then look to re-lock his legs and begin again. Rolls was the first to willingly open his legs and leave them open as he attempted to submit or sweep his opponent. Rolls was years ahead of his time and dominated his opponents, eventually becoming Brazilian champion in jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and judo.

In the early days of modern MMA, Brazilian fighters were able to easily control and finish their opponents from the bottom. Royce Gracie's victory over Dan Severn and Renzo Gracie's victory over Oleg Taktarov are legendary.

Today, the sport has changed. The positional structure that was once jiu-jitsu's secret weapon is known and accepted universally. The short rounds allow fighters to be more explosive with less fear of running out of gas. The rounds also give the man on the bottom little time to work. The basic attacks from the guard are well known, as are the defenses.

All of these circumstances have combined together to leave many questioning what is the guard's place in MMA and how should the guard be used in this modern sport?

Some fighters are ardent believers in the closed guard, while others claim that the open guard is the only way to be successful on the bottom, some believe that the half guard is the key to victory, and these days its impossible to mention the guard without someone claiming that the rubber guard is the ultimate choice and that Eddie Bravo is god (he's not). Let's start by examining the strengths and weaknesses of each position:

The closed guard is the traditional guard position that is generally taught first to fighters. The closed guard's greatest strength is control. By having your legs locked, you know exactly where your opponent is at all times and can easily manipulate his body. The closed guard also offers you a constant source of attacks. If your opponent is flat against your chest, he cannot attack you. If he's sitting straight up, he is vulnerable to be swept. If his hands are on your chest, he is vulnerable to arm bars, triangles, and arm drags. If his hands are on the mat, he is vulnerable to kimuras, omo platas, more triangles, and the rubber guard.

The major disadvantage to the closed guard is that few people use it correctly. A guard is only a guard if you are guarding. It is far too common that you see the bottom fighter with his legs locked and getting pounded in the face. The man on the bottom cannot keep his legs locked and allow the top person to posture up and initiate action. You must keep his posture broken down and attack. Always attack. If the opponent does gain his posture and begin to initiate his attack, the bottom man MUST OPEN HIS GUARD.

The open guard is generally seen as a more offense minded position than the closed guard. And it is true that the offensive options in the open guard are limited only by your imagination. The array of sweeps available from the open guard is staggering. All of this offense comes at a price though. And that price is control.

By freely opening your legs, you lose the ability to break your opponents posture and control his body. You also give him the option of simply standing up and walking away. You're going to get hit in any fight (after all, you are fighting), however the open guard allows your opponent to really wind up and generate power on a potential fight ending punch.

The half guard is another position with a good and bad side to it. The half guard is mainly a sweeping position, and an effective one, but there's a fine line between sweeping your opponent and being pinned and beaten on in this position. Controlling one of your opponent's legs is certainly easier than controlling his entire body. Unfortunately this means that you aren't controlling his entire body and he might easily control yours.

This brings us to our last commonly mentioned guard: the rubber guard. Let me begin by saying that I personally play rubber guard a lot and it is a normal part of my game. But plainly said, the rubber guard should not even be a part of this discussion. Rubber guard supporters point to Shinya Aoki and claim that the rubber guard is absolutely fool proof when used correctly.

Aoki is indeed a fine example of using the guard in MMA. And the rubber guard can be an effective guard system if you have the physical attributes and background to pull it off. But I challenge you to show me another fighter that has consistently used the rubber guard in MMA successfully. Nino Schembri, the true inventor of the rubber guard, floundered in MMA for years trying to use the rubber guard, despite the fact that he is one of the best competitors in jiu-jitsu history. Maybe if Nino had some funny looking shorts with a shady degree of stickiness to them, he could have used the rubber guard successfully as well.

The rubber guard is an extra. It is an add on to the closed guard after you break your opponents posture. But it is not for everyone and it is not the end all and be all of guard work.

What is the guard's place in MMA?

In modern MMA, it is best not to be on the bottom at all. The short rounds do not give the bottom man much time to work and if you aren't working fast enough, the referee will stand you up. Beyond that, high level athletes with varying degrees of slipperiness (depending on whether or not they train in New Mexico) can be vary hard to control. But there are times that you will be taken down, it is unavoidable. There are also times that being on the bottom might be preferable to standing up or being pinned against the cage.

In the times that you do end up on the bottom, the guard is the safest place to be. The closed guard gives you the most control over your opponent and by holding him close, you will not take significant damage. But you must attack from the closed guard. If you don't attack, your opponent will eventually find a way to open your legs and pass.

If you are on the bottom, at some point, your legs will come open. Whether they open while you attack, you open your legs because you can't control your opponent's posture, or your opponent breaks your legs open doesn't matter. What does matter is that you feel comfortable defending and attacking from the open guard.

It is very likely that if your opponent is trying to pass your guard, you will at some point end up in the half guard. Once again, you need to know how to control the distance between you and attack from this position. Or at the very least how to work back to the full guard.

The rubber guard is a great addition to your closed guard if you are abnormally flexible and have long legs. But out of the positions listed, it is the least important and the least used (successfully) in MMA.

The guard should be viewed as a whole. The open, closed, and half guard positions should flow together seamlessly and you should feel comfortable defending and attacking from each of them. No single version of the guard will be successful without support from the others.